Details count in period garments and sets
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It's tempting to put a decade into a tidy box, with a strict list of unique cultural and design attributes. In reality, no era is completely self-contained. Architecture, fashion and even hairstyles all show the accumulated remnants of previous decades.
"Sometimes when people make period films, they seem to be saying, 'Oh, it's 1974. Everybody must be wearing wide ties!'" observes costume designer Casey Storm. "That's kind of what makes it look like a costume piece."
Storm made sure to show a cross section of neckwear and apparel in Paramount's "Zodiac," which tells the true story of the pursuit of a Bay Area serial killer during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"From our first conversations, (director David Fincher) wanted to make sure that everything was accurate but nothing stood out," Storm says.
That aesthetic is taken to the extreme in Miramax's "No Country for Old Men." Although the film is set in 1980, most viewers would never know it. There are no ultramodern gray sectional sofas, Patrick Nagel prints or any other telltale signs of the era.
"It was about keeping all the other periods out and just having 1980 be very understated," says Jess Gonchor, the film's production designer. "I kept the cars of the period and the merchandise in some of the stores. That told the story that it was 1980."
Gonchor's preproduction research included flying west to scout various small Texas towns. He discovered that many of them had changed little since 1980 -- or 1970, for that matter.
The locals Gonchor encountered concurred. "They would say, 'It was just like this. It hasn't changed a bit.' In this town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where we ended up shooting half the movie, time stood still. Although we certainly had to be careful of Carl's Jr.s and McDonalds and things like that."
Sometimes discerning precisely what is period accurate can be a challenge, no matter how thorough one's research. Production and costume designer Lai Pan built from scratch a re-creation of a high-end World War II-era shopping district on Shanghai's Nanking Road for Focus Features' "Lust, Caution." He had no problem finding a wealth of photos, documentaries and writings to use as references, but the group of historians hired by director Ang Lee to consult on the film had conflicting views.
According to Pan, some would insist that Nanking Road was quite bleak in the fall of 1942, while others would maintain it was unusually prosperous. Eventually, Pan got a definitive answer when he uncovered a documentary that showed a thriving Nanking Road, bustling with thousands of people.
The Nanking Road set took four months to construct at Shanghai Film Studios and ended up stretching 853 feet by 525 feet, with 182 stores. While the individual details were recreated with pinpoint historical accuracy, the big picture was somewhat telescoped.
"On Nanking Road, the theater, boutique, cafe and jewelry store did exist, but their real locations were not the same as the ones described in the short story (on which the film is based)," Pan says. "We built the streets and houses on Nanking Road working from a map of Shanghai from that era, but those key locations were arranged according to the short story's specifications."
Production designer and Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood wanted an authentic historical location to portray the Tallis family's British country home in Focus Features' "Atonement." At first, she had her heart set on the Tyntesfield Estate near Bristol, England. But the property was owned by the National Trust, and the filmmakers would have had to cope with severe use restrictions and regular visits from tourists. So Greenwood turned to her second choice, Stokesay Court in Shropshire. When she first visited the property with director Joe Wright, she was not impressed.
"It was really grim," recalls Greenwood. "There were no furnishings, no wallpapers. It was very gloomy and depressing. But, in retrospect, it was great, because it gave us a blank palette."
"Zodiac" production designer Donald Graham Burt transformed the old post office in the Terminal Annex Building in downtown Los Angeles into the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom. Everything was authentic and fully operational, from the vintage lighting fixtures, typewriters and phones to the drinking fountains and elevators.
The makers of "Zodiac" were fortunate that many of the people portrayed in the film were still alive to assist the filmmakers in their quest for accurate detail. For instance, former Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film), who wrote the books on which the film is based, provided Storm with reams of photographs.
"I had a lot of photos of Graysmith in bad plaid shirts from that period, so we felt like it was important for that to be a part of it," Storm says.
Recreating early 1960s Baltimore in Toronto for New Line's "Hairspray" was no less daunting. Production designer David Gropman's crew converted over 60 modern-day storefronts, changed all the signage to circa 1962 and filled the streets with period vehicles.
The over-the-top hairstyles in the film might seem too extreme to be authentic, but hair and wig designer Judi Cooper-Sealy says they adhere closely to the historical record.
"Believe it or not, about every hairdo on the screen I saw somewhere in a magazine or on one of the dance shows," she says. "The only thing I exaggerated was Queen Latifah's beehive."
Like Gropman and Cooper-Sealy, "Hairspray" costume designer Rita Ryack called upon a wide variety of research materials to craft her looks for the film, from old high school yearbooks and magazines to archival footage of various dance shows of the era. But her No. 1 resource was her own memory.
"I lived it," Ryack says.